There is a habit to which my girlfriends are, almost without exception, addicted. I am, myself, addicted to the point of self-hatred. Even girls with mild tempers and personalities are addicted. The object of our collective addiction is a familiar subject, but it is, for some, potentially very harmful. We’re all addicted to losing weight.
I don’t blame the media for young females’ attraction to weight loss. I don’t blame our parents. I blame our friends. This is an addiction that, more than smoking or drugs, feeds off the intensity of others. It seems as if every girl at Yale is skinny, and those of us who aren’t want to be. I get a lot more depressed about my body just walking around my college than I did watching the Oscars, or than I do looking through “Cosmo.” We can tell ourselves that those women aren’t real, that it’s their job to look like that. But when our friends and classmates are unbelievably small and skinny, it seems more achievable.
So, as we’re facing big, scary decisions about our lives — what to write our final papers about, what to major in, what career to pursue — we attempt to exert control over something a little more manageable: our bodies. We stop eating carbs. We stop eating lunch. We start to notice that we look fat in every photograph. We start going to the gym several times a day, which means we have to stop sleeping enough. Lo and behold, we start losing weight.
Needless to say, losing weight is not inherently bad. And when we talk of watching what we’re eating, we might actually be referring to being healthy. Exercising is, likewise, a healthy activity. Unfortunately, people here don’t seem to conduct their eating habits according to awareness of factors such as cholesterol, fat, and recognizable, trustworthy ingredients. Yale girls sit down in the dining hall and expect themselves to consume a meal of, for example, fried mozzarella sticks, carrot sticks and Diet Coke.
For Lent, I decided, somewhat selfishly, to give up sweets and soda. I thought for a while that this would help me manage a healthier, more weight-conscious diet, but one day I realized, as I consumed a lunch of French fries, clam chowder and three glasses of water, that this meal was in fact entirely void of nutritional value.
Instead of reflecting on what I was actually putting into my body, I was setting down some vaguely appealing but horrendously fatty and unfulfilling items on my tray, with no end of self-improvement or self-reflection in sight. Sure, I wasn’t eating sweets, but I didn’t seem worried at all about my arteries. My habits may differ from those of other girls, but they are similarly misguided in their tendency toward eating poorly while rejecting what we actually want.
With this in mind, I think that our — Yale girls’ — problem is two-fold. First, our collective mind is disgusted by extraneous fat, for no apparent reason at all. Since when does being attractive mean being skinny? Who said that girls need to be skinny, anyway? We’re not under pressure from males, who don’t seem to care about jean sizes, let alone calories. It probably isn’t a desire to frolic scantily clad through our daily lives, because, first, it’s been too cold, and second, the girls who are losing weight are so self-conscious that they probably think their arms are too flabby to expose. No, it is a cycle in which we lose more and more weight, eat less, exercise more, and feel fatter as we get skinnier. For obvious reasons, it’s a cycle that is very dangerous.
Second, we just aren’t eating healthily. Granted, eating wisely can be difficult in most dining halls, which generally offer little more than fries, cream-based soups and sauces of questionable origin, and a skimpy array of fresh produce and sandwich meats. Still, a healthy lifestyle is possible, and something to strive for. Just as we take pains to eat a low-carb or low-calorie diet, we ought to be sure to do basic things such as get enough vitamin C, fiber, iron and other essential nutrients that are part of a balanced lifestyle.
Grade school nutrition aside, we should pay a little more attention to our instincts and a little less to our weight because it makes us happier. Food is a cultural institution, a source of both sustenance and delight, something to enjoy. Yale is taking a revolutionary step in its Sustainable Food Project, which, under the guidance of wildly well-respected chef Alice Waters, is working to establish a cooperative community — rooted in a love of good food — among Yale students and employees and local farmers and growers.
Eating things that are healthy and natural and taste good is part of being a person, and sharing meals with other people, commenting on what you’re all eating, and experimenting with a variety of foods are all aspects of life in a civilized social community. As Jack Black says in the movie “School of Rock,” “I like to eat: is that such a crime?”
Helen Vera is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.